The Theme Park as Text

Florian Freitag (JGU Mainz)

There are many ways to look at and study theme parks. One way is to focus on the people in the theme park – the visitors, but also the employees – and to examine how they interact with the place as well as with each other, for example by observing or conducting interviews with them. Another option is to take a historical approach and to use old photographs, visitor guidemaps, and other material to find out how a particular park has developed over time. And yet another possibility – one that has been particularly popular with theme park scholars from the Humanities in the past – is to “read” the theme park as a text. That is to say, like a literary scholar studying a text (say, a poem, a short story, or a novel) and trying to find out how its individual words, sentences, and paragraphs produce meaning, a theme park scholar may look at the individual elements of a park to find out how exactly they work together to create a certain image, a specific story, or any other kind of signifying structure.

Main Street, Disneyland, Anaheim CA. Creative Commons: Fastily

Take Main Street, for instance, the entrance section to Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, and perhaps one of the most famous themed spaces in the world. Main Street offers all the surface architectural features of an ordinary street – rows of buildings with numbers, sidewalks, lampposts and street signs, benches, even mailboxes. But of course, Main Street is not an ordinary street, it is a private, highly controlled space, where access is restricted to those who have paid the entrance fee and where such basic democratic rights as the right to demonstrate or the right to free speech are seriously curtailed. Simply put, Main Street is not a street – it merely borrows the architectural forms and signs of the public realm to simulate urbanity and to thus produce the image or idea of a public street (and quite successfully so – many cities and towns in the U.S. have used Main Street as a model for their main streets).

Of course, the textual approach intentionally disregards several vital aspects of the park in order to get a clearer picture. For instance, its goal is not to find out what the park actually means to the various people who come there either for work or for pleasure; rather, it seeks to explain what different kinds of meanings the theme park potentially conveys. Moreover, this particular way of studying theme parks considers the sites as stable and static, ignoring the many ways in which theme parks constantly change, whether intentionally (e.g., by replacing old rides, restaurants, or shops with new ones) or not (e.g., by showing signs of wear and tear). Nevertheless, the method of reading theme parks as texts can be illuminating precisely because it reveals underlying structures that may not be readily apparent to either the visitors, the employees, or even the creators of the parks themselves.

This is at least partly because the textual approach makes available to the researcher all the tools, concepts, and theories that literary criticism has developed. For example, in literary criticism the concept of “intertextuality” refers to the notion of how texts – both during the process of their creation and in terms of the subsequent readerly and critical response to them – encompass and respond to other texts. According to this concept, then, all texts are embedded in a dense network of references and links to other texts, with – in Western literature, at least – the Bible constituting one central node of the intertextual web. With respect to theme parks, Disneyland in particular and the Disney’s “castle parks” in general may be regarded as central nodes of the intertextual network that exists between theme parks. Many parks around the world – from Europa-Park in Rust, Germany, which has an entrance area that is not entirely unlike Disneyland’s Main Street, to Fantawild Dreamland in Zhuzhou, China, which at its center features a castle that strongly resembles Disneyland Paris’s Sleeping Beauty Castle – refer to the layout, themes, and particular architectural or other elements of the Disney parks.

Theme parks not only encompass, respond and refer to each other, however, but also to many other kinds of “texts” – including movies, TV shows, video games, and even literary works. Theme park spaces based on movies have become particularly popular in recent times, with, for instance, Avatar (2009) and the Star Wars franchise (1977-) having been adapted as theme park rides and lands.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando Resort. CC: Rstoplabe14

When these movies themselves refer to other texts, as in the case of the Harry Potter series of films (2001-2011; adapted in the various Universal theme parks from 2010 to 2016), the intertextual network becomes even more complex. And, of course, theme parks not only refer to other texts, they are also referred to by other texts: the popular Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise (2003-), for example, responds to the eponymous theme park attraction at several Disney parks. Even if it does not capture all the aspects of the sites, the textual approach to theme parks allows researchers to observe, analyze, and describe these and other phenomena with much precision.

One thought on “The Theme Park as Text”

  1. Florian, It’s been a while. Hope you are doing well. Your essay on reading theme parks is very thought-provoking. My current projects involve architectural writing – especially writing by architects for general consumption and general writing for architectural consumption. I came across a small piece in Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Book 5, Ch. 2, 160–161) in which the archbishop expresses his fear that the printed book is going to replace architecture as the tangible record of human cultural aspirations and knowledge (the action takes place at the dawning of moveable type). This has caused me to think a lot about the way architecture – historic and contemporary – might be read, because of or, more especially, despite the architect’s original intentions. Theme park architecture stands as an excellent architectural exemplar of current cultural aspirations and story-telling – intentional and unintentional – and I agree with you, we can all learn a lot more by reading than by simply experiencing.



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